Freedom fighters honored by SPLC

A student newspaper at a Virginia college and four student newspaper editors at an Ohio high school that battled efforts by school administrators to control the content of their publications have been named the winners of student press freedom awards co-sponsored by the Student Press Law Center.

The staff of The Script at Hampton University received the 2004 College Press Freedom award on Saturday, Nov. 6, at the Associated Collegiate Press/College Media Advisers National Convention in Nashville, Tenn.’ The award, sponsored by the Student Press Law Center and the Associated Collegiate Press, is given each year to a college journalist or college news medium that has demonstrated outstanding support for the free press rights of students.

The conflict at Hampton began in October 2003 when the editors of The Script attempted to publish a news story that referred to numerous citations for health code violations state officials found at a school cafeteria. In response, the university’s acting president JoAnn Haysbert confiscated all 6,500 copies of the paper, which was to be distributed on campus during Homecoming weekend.

The Script staff, led by Editor in Chief Talia Buford, immediately took action to defend the editorial independence of their publication.’ In the face of administrative warnings, including threats of expulsion, the staff contacted commercial news media organizations and professional journalists around the country, held press conferences condemning the censorship and demanded that the private university recognize their right to press freedom.

After a tense two-day standoff, The Script agreed to reprint the newspaper with a statement by Haysbert on page one, but accompanied it with a large disclaimer explaining why the newspaper staff believed the university’s demand was a dangerous precedent in bad journalism. In exchange, the university administration agreed to form a task force of faculty members, students and professional journalists that eventually created a policy adopted by the college that endorsed press freedom and prohibited school officials from confiscating the newspaper again.

Meanwhile, four Ohio high school student journalists who sued their school after officials confiscated 4,500 copies of their student newspaper were named this year’s winners of the Courage in Student Journalism Award.

Darcie Draudt, Tim Yaczo, Kendra Oyer and Vasanth Ananath, all former editors of The Wooster Blade at Wooster High School will share the $5,000 prize.’ The award was presented at the National Scholastic Press Association/Journalism Education Association Fall Convention in Atlanta on Nov. 20.’ The Courage in Student Journalism Award is presented each year to a student journalist who has demonstrated exceptional support, despite resistance or difficult circumstances, for student press freedom. The award is sponsored by the Newseum, the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association.

The students’ legal battle began when their school superintendent impounded the entire press run of a December 2002 issue of the Blade.’ He claimed a front-page article about how the school was handling punishment for student athletes caught drinking alcohol contained “potentially defamatory” information. In the article, the daughter of a school board member was quoted as saying that she drank alcohol at an off-campus party and was disciplined for violating the school’s code of conduct for athletes. The student journalists maintained the girl told a Wooster Blade reporter that she had been drinking at the party; however, the newspaper subsequently acknowledged that girl was not punished for the incident. The Blade‘s story, which raised questions about the school board’s actions in lifting student punishments issued by administrators, prompted a community-wide discussion of the issue.

In January 2003, the students filed a lawsuit against the school to force officials to release the newspaper. The following month, in a preliminary ruling, a U.S. District Court recognized that the student newspaper had greater protection than that provided by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case because the school had opened the publication as a public forum for student expression by giving the students authority to make their own content decisions. The ruling in Draudt v. City of Wooster, 246 F. Supp. 2d 820 (N.D. Ohio 2003), the first of its kind in the country, has subsequently been cited by another federal court in rejecting censorship of a student newspaper in Michigan. See Dean v. Utica Community Schools, referred to above.

In November 2003, the Wooster students settled their case. The board of education agreed to pay $5,000 to charities designated by the students as well as $30,000 to their attorney and agreed to avoid confiscating the student newspaper in the future without first talking with the student editors.